Think Before We Talk About War on ISIS

Whether our political leaders and media commentators are willing to declare war on the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is fast becoming somewhat of a litmus test for whether one is serious about defeating this particular brand of terrorists. While the horror of the attacks in Paris certainly merits a strong response, the notion of a war against ISIS is neither apt nor helpful in actually eliminating the threat from the group and its sympathizers. It is not even very satisfying as a rhetorical device as it does not seem to mobilize opinion or inspire our population to make the sacrifices that a genuine war would entail, assuming we have gotten over our willingness to pursue massive, unfunded, and undeclared voluntary wars.

On Nov. 15, Anthony Cordesman made a cogent and exhaustive case for caution when talking about as well as pursuing “war” with ISIS. He outlines the pitfalls of precipitous action in responding to the Paris attack and makes a strong case for avoiding creeping escalation and for adopting a broader strategy that recognizes that ISIS is only part of the problem in the region and cannot be dealt with in isolation. I would only add a few thoughts on the politics of calling for war and actually pursuing war that need to be clarified and discussed broadly.

If America really wants to go to war, then it might be appropriate for us to actually think through what it means and make the political decisions about it in an open, democratic way. Currently, we are drifting in an ill-defined limbo in which our politicians and public are willing to accept commitment of large amounts of air power and small numbers of military personnel on the ground to “assist” others in their war on ISIS. While Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio brought up coming to the aid of the French through our NATO Article 5 obligations, there seems, in fact, to be very little appetite either in Europe or North America for going this route. Another Republican presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, views ISIS as “a threat to Western civilization,” but it is difficult to conceive that ISIS will ever be in a position to take territory from France or even from NATO ally Turkey.  And we should recall that even though Article 5 was invoked after the 9/11 attacks, it quickly became clear that our NATO allies had different definitions of the so-called war on terror than did we, and provided support unevenly and often reluctantly. Symbolic support is not unimportant, but it can be overrated.

Other candidates and commentators dwell on the obligations of Arab states and others in the region (Iran and Turkey, for example) to take the fight to ISIS, with the assistance of our bombs and advisers, and our “leadership.” But what exactly do we mean by leadership in this context? Can we lead effectively if we do not really believe this conflict is a threat to our people and territory?  We are unnerved by ISIS’ barbarity and nervous that the ISIS terror tentacles will reach us and therefore feel the need to “do something.” But that something we have in mind does not appear to be war, and we should be cautious not to cheapen the term. If it were really a war, would we not identify ISIS as an enemy of the United States and employ all means to defeat it, not just the limited means currently deployed? (And let’s just drop altogether the hackneyed term “boots on the ground,” — we’re talking about real people with real lives.)

What precisely would be the objective of this war? To once and for all defeat ISIS?  To then hand over the territory they have taken in Syria and Iraq to its rightful owners, such as we did in Kuwait in 1991, where there was a legitimate government? Let’s say we send massive numbers of US, French, British, and maybe Saudi troops into contested areas of Syria and Iraq, after a full public and congressional debate and declaration of war, of course. Would American blood be well spent assuring the rule of a Syrian dictator or sectarian forces in Iraq?

More importantly, perhaps, would such a war bring security to Europe or the United States? If one is willing to die for a cause, which the killers in Paris were, is it really that hard to procure enough weapons to do harm? Would a massive war in the Middle East somehow preclude or prevent terror attacks in Europe or the United States? There is certainly no direct correlation between the size of the US effort and the security outcomes, as is evident from the outcome in Iraq. On the other hand, a “holy war” might spark many far more asymmetrical attacks like those we have seen in Paris, Turkey, and Lebanon, and could well increase the risk in the United States, where ISIS terror has not been a significant threat and where the group has only a miniscule number of sympathizers.

Isn’t a war with the West something that ISIS would welcome? Don’t they see their efforts as a war against various types of infidels, both within Islam and externally? And just how long would this war last? Our predictions of the length of time it would take to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan were tragically wrong.  Why should Americans think that a war with ISIS would be any less unpredictable?

Over the past several years, we have become pretty good at protecting the United States from terrorism. The formula is not a secret: push terrorists into the margins employing a combination of force, financial strangulation, and international cooperation. The key to success is a robust, cooperative intelligence effort, and national resilience among those nations subjected to terror attacks. There is no possible way to prevent all terror attacks, but there are proven methods to limit them and move past those attacks that do occur.  We have seen this resilience from New York to Madrid to London to Istanbul to Paris to Beirut. 

Finally, it is time that we honored military service with more than just symbolic tributes. Only a tiny minority of Americans have actually served in combat in recent years. They have served in uncertain conflicts with uncertain objectives. That ambiguity may be the new normal, but it is by no means adequate justification for deploying the language of war before thinking through what it really means. If we are to commit to wars, now or at some future date, it should only be after a full consideration of the costs and expected benefits. Issues of war deserve serious consideration by our people and their leaders, (and their prospective leaders).  That is how we should “support the troops.”

Richard LeBaron, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, is a former US Ambassador to Kuwait.

Related Experts: Richard LeBaron

Image: A man described as Abdelhamid Abaaoud is seen in this undated photograph that was published in the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham's online magazine Dabiq and posted on a social media website. Abaaoud , a 27-year-old Belgian national currently in Syria, is believed to be one of ISIS’ most active operators. He is suspected of being behind the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, according to a source close to the French investigation. (Reuters)